40 Years of Leadership – Sister Lillian Murphy

Mercy Housing – Sister Lillian Murphy – Expanding Affordable Housing (1987-2014)

Lillian Murphy was one of eight children born in San Francisco to Dennis and Katherine Driscoll Murphy. She attended St. Peter’s elementary and high schools, where she was introduced to the Sisters of Mercy. In 1959, Sister Lillian entered the community and was given the religious name of Sister Mary Denis.Sister Lillian playing guitar alongside other sisters and a man playing a cello.

“The day I entered the convent my mother predicted that I would be home in two weeks! That was more than half a century ago and I’m still here!”

In 1987, Mercy Housing named Sister Lillian Murphy as the organization’s new CEO, replacing Sister Mary Terese Tracy who had retired the previous year. A California native, Sister Lillian was a member of the Sisters of Mercy of Burlingame and earned her Masters’ Degree in Public Health from the University of California at Berkley before joining St. Mary’s Hospital as an Associate Administrator.

Spiritual Calling

“People think of not-for-profit housing as a charity,” Sister Lillian once said. “It’s not charity. It’s justice. People have a right to safe, affordable housing…We are dealing with human lives. We want to be known for compassionate competence.”

When Sister Lillian was 18 years old, she had a strong desire to help others but didn’t want to do it alone. “All of us can accomplish more when we work together,” she said. Sister Lillian thought she wanted to teach 7th or 8th grade when she initially entered the Community but found herself working in the accounting department at San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Hospital with other Sisters. She enjoyed her job and did it well. Following her five years of formation, she was asked to return to the hospital to continue her work. Her next move was to work at a hospital in Phoenix for eight years. She then returned to the Bay Area to attend graduate school for hospital administration at UC Berkeley.

Following the retirement of Sister Mary Terese Tracy in 1986, Sister Lillian became the organization’s new CEO. Like her predecessor, Sister Lillian had worked in the healthcare field prior to joining Mercy Housing and came to the organization without any technical experience in the housing industry. However, like Sister Mary Terese, Sister Lillian became passionate about housing.  At the time, Mercy Housing’s portfolio consisted of four properties in Idaho, one in Denver, and scattered-site housing in Kansas City and Omaha.

Unafraid of a challenge, she had a “can-do” attitude in everything she did. Sister Lillian believed that you learned what was needed before creating a structure – if you didn’t approach things that way, you’d have less of an impact and risk becoming irrelevant.

Connecting Health and Housing

“Affordable housing is a cornerstone of strong, healthy communities. When affordable housing is not available to low-income households, family resources needed for food, medical or dental care, and other necessities are diverted to housing costs.” – Sister Lillian Murphy

Through her work at local hospitals, Sister Lillian had already discovered a link between poor health and substandard housing. She concluded that diseases such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes were tied to problems in the home. And that mentally ill patients with little money had trouble keeping their homes, which often worsened their mental instability. She felt it was an injustice that people dealing with mental health issues were forced to spend most of their resources on housing – no matter how inadequate it might have been – instead of paying for critical doctor’s visits and prescriptions.

Sister Lillian and Women Religious

“You give your best every day because you know you are doing important work that enriches others’ lives.”

Sister Lillian posing with Sister Mary Terese Tracy

As a member of Women Religious, Sister Lillian was a compassionate advocate for affordable housing. Women’s Religious communities founded major health and education miniseries because they believed that institutions could be a powerful force for good in the struggle for social and economic justice. An astute business leader and an innovative problem solver, Sister Lillian inspired Mercy Housing to not just alleviate the symptoms of housing issues but to take things a step further and create concrete, scalable responses to the injustices that have hindered low-income families.

Did You Know? When Sister Lillian first started, Mercy Housing was a small organization with units scattered across several states. The organization’s main office consisted of a few rooms on the cardiac floor of Mercy Hospital in Denver, CO.   Sister Lillian managed the finances for the rapidly growing organization.  For many years she kept all the checkbooks for every property in her purse!

Sister Lillian the Leader

“I firmly believe that no single individual is responsible for the success of an organization. The leader sets the tone but there are many hands, heads, and hearts doing the work.” – Sister Lillian, National Housing Conference, 2011


Mercy Gala on Friday, June 14, 2013 In San Francisco, California. (Chris Schneider Photography)

Under Sister Lillian’s leadership, Mercy Housing expanded from a small, regional housing development organization with 250 homes and a staff of 20 to a nationwide housing organization that housed 42,000 residents, with 1,531 employees. She also helped Mercy Housing to reach out to familiar networks of Roman Catholic institutions to find workers, partners, and funds. Within two years of her appointment as CEO, small operations had been set up in Burlingame and Sacramento, allowing Mercy Housing to open regional branches in California. These relationships led to the acquisition of Catholic Charities of San Francisco Housing Department in 1993, creating Mercy Housing California.

It was Sister Lillian who approached her home Community in Burlingame as well as the Sisters of Auburn, located outside of San Francisco, with an offer to become sponsors of Mercy Housing. Both communities agreed and in 1989, each invested $500,000 into the organization, establishing them as a Founding Community.

She was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the University of San Francisco in 1989. Just one year later in 1990, she was honored with The Lifetime Achievement Award by The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. In 2006, Sister Lillian was presented with the Leadership Award, from The National Low Income Housing Coalition, and in 2009, she was inducted into the Affordable Housing Finance’s Hall of Fame. In 2017, Sister Lillian was honored with the Dignity Award, at the celebration of Mercy Housing’s 35th Anniversary.  She always credited the success of Mercy Housing to the talented and dedicated staff members working every day to make the vision a reality.

Sister Lillian’s Legacy

“Affordable housing is a tool we use to build something greater: HOPE”

It is impossible to talk about Mercy Housing’s 40 years of success without talking about Sister Lillian. With her leadership, Mercy Housing grew into an award-winning, national non-profit housing organization. Her belief that everyone deserves access to safe, quality housing was a matter of economic and social justice, continues to guide us today through our three core values: Respect, Justice, Mercy.

Thanks to her unwavering dedication and compassion, Mercy Housing continues to set the precedent for providing affordable housing communities and resident services for low-income families, seniors, veterans, and people with special needs.

She laid the foundation that has made our resident-centered approach possible.

In March, our brand-new family building 691 China Basin in San Francisco will be renamed the Sister Lillian Murphy Community.

Sister Lillian passed away in 2019 following a brief illness. Her dedication to peace transformed thousands of people’s lives and that legacy is entrusted to all of us.  “Each one of you is truly awesome in your commitment to our vision, mission, and core values …. My thanks to each of you for your committed service to this important work, today and into the future.”

Fun Facts about Sister Lillian Murphy

  • A master fundraiser, The Boise Weekly once referred to Sister Lillian as “Sister Million Murphy,” following the 2012 grand opening of a senior property in Idaho.Farewell event for Sister Lillian on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2014. (Chris Schneider)
  • When thinking about movies that depicted Sisters, Sister Lillian felt that “Dead Man Walking” was the most realistic. She felt it showed a genuine portrayal of Sisters and how focused Susan Sarandon’s character was on her ministry and her connection to the prisoner.
  • She enjoyed spending time with her good friends in the community as well as her nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, and grand-nephews.
  • Like so many of us, Sister Lillian had spiritual doubts, as she described, “Being a Sister doesn’t mean I’m not human with all the doubts and questions that we all experience in our walks of life.”
  • Yes, Sister Lillian enjoyed a glass of wine from time to time. She grew up with four brothers who were bartenders. “Having a drink or glass of wine is also a socially acceptable way of connecting with people in a pleasant and casual environment.”